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Big Trees, Big Building and Big Oil Highlighted UC Berkeley’s 2007

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 28, 2007
UC Berkeley students protesting the $500 million BP research agreement march through Sather Gate during a May 8 demonstration that ended in chants outside the administration building. Photograph by Richard Brenneman.
UC Berkeley students protesting the $500 million BP research agreement march through Sather Gate during a May 8 demonstration that ended in chants outside the administration building. Photograph by Richard Brenneman.

For California’s premier public university, 2007 was a year of big trees, big buildings and Big Oil. 

And the year ended with a key development decision, like the tree-sitters perched in the oak branches next to Memorial Stadium, still up in the air. 

The fate of what UC Berkeley developers have dubbed the Southeast Campus Integrated projects (SCIP)—which include a four-story high tech gym complex at the site of the stadium grove—ended the year in the hands of an Alameda County Superior Court judge. 

But an even more controversial project, one that could literally transform the face of the earth, has already been decided. 

BP, the company once known as British Petroleum, has given the university a $500 million grant to produce crops and microbes genetically engineered to fuel the world’s planes, trains and automobiles. 

A second UC Berkeley-connected agrofuel project, bank-rolled by $135 million in federal funds, has already started to set up shop in Emeryville. 

And as the year ended the university was looking at a proposed new plan for downtown Berkeley, where it has plans for its own massive building boom, including a high-rise hotel and a world-class museum. 


SCIP suit 

The major SCIP projects include the gym, a new office and meeting facility to join staff and functions of the university’s law and business schools and an underground parking lot to be built at the site of Maxwell Family Field northwest of the stadium. 

The first SCIP project slated for construction is the Student Athlete High Performance Center, which will feature state-of-the-art training facilities for student athletes and offices for the athletic department. 

Work was originally set to begin last January, but construction was derailed when the City of Berkeley, neighbors and a group of environmentalist filed suit, alleging that the SCIP environmental review was legally flawed. 

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller agreed that the litigants had raised enough questions to require a full airing in her court, and following a lengthy hearing and the submission of 45,000 pages of evidence, she promised a ruling by early February. 

Judge Miller has already rejected one contention raised by John M. Sanger, one of the two private San Francisco attorneys who represent the university in the action. 

Sanger contended that the university wasn’t bound by the Alquist-Priolo Act, which governs construction atop or within 50 feet of active earthquake faults. 

If accepted by the judge, that argument would have made one of the plaintiffs’ key arguments moot. But in December, Miller issued a finding rejecting the defendant’s contention, and asking for expert evaluation of whether the gym as proposed would be physically attached to the stadium, as the plaintiffs claim. 

If the gym were attached, then the gym project would be governed by Alquist-Priolo, which bans new construction in fault zones and limits renovations to half of the value of an existing structure. 

There is no question about the stadium itself, since the structure sits atop the Hayward Fault, which runs from end zone to end zone. 

Another key question is how to reckon the stadium’s value. The plaintiffs contend that the number should be set at what the existing building would command on the open market, while the university argues the figure should be set at what it would cost to build a replacement structure that conforms to current seismic code.  

The difference between the two numbers could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and a finding for the plaintiffs would drastically reduce the university’s plans to renovate the aging landmarked facility.  

While Berkeley city councilmembers and neighbors decided to sue because of the potential impacts of the SCIP projects on already overtaxed municipal services, another strain of opposition was more strictly environmental. 

The California Oak Foundation and Save the Oaks at the Stadium were fighting for the trees. 



Even before the legal arguments could commence, another form of action elevated the controversy—literally. 

It was Big Game Day 2006 when Zachary Running Wolf, a Native American trounced the month before in his run for the office of mayor, ascended the branches of a redwood just west of the stadium, launching a protest that continues today, more than a year later. 

Joined by a changing cast of supporters, Running Wolf and his fellow protestors have targeted their action both at preserving the trees, a handful of which predate the 1923 stadium itself, and at preserving the Native American burials they say lie in the soil beneath the grove. 

University officials and an archaeologist retained as a consultant say they doubt the presence of any significant number of burials, but Running Wolf, Native American allies and local history writer Richard Schwartz challenge the university’s claim. 

The protest in the branches has drawn national attention, and reached a peak Jan. 22 when three venerable protesters climbed a ladder and took their seats on a platform specially raised for the occasion. 

The next morning’s New York Times featured Sylvia McLaughlin, then 90, joined by City Councilmember Betty Olds, 86, and former Mayor Shirley Dean, 71. 

In the ensuing months, the university won a court ruling for an injunction against the tree-sitters and have made numerous arrests at the site. Running Wolf, at last count, had been busted nine times and spent several brief stretches behind bars. 

The university has built two separate fences around the site, finally topping them with barbed wire after an event where a large group of supporters ascended up and over the chain link to deliver supplies to the tree-sitters. 

After younger supporters, including at least two students, were arrested for bringing supplies, for the last several weeks a group of grandmothers has been gathering at the grove every Sunday outside the fence to load up supplies to be lifted skyward in buckets and to haul out bodily wastes. 


Bowles battle 

Berkeley preservationists and dedicated alumni did win one decisive victory this year when the university shelved plans to turn another stadium-area landmark into a posh school for corporate executives. 

Haas School of Business Dean Tom Campbell had set his sights on Bowles Hall, the first men’s dormitory built in the UC system, as the site of his college’s executive training program. 

Word of the plan sparked Bowles alumni into action, with retired IBM executive John Sayles mobilizing the Bowles Hall Alumni Association to save the venerable building for its original purpose. 

One well-placed alumnus who joined the fray was Norman Mineta, Clinton-era Secretary of Transportation who had previously served as a congressional representative from the same district which had later elected Campbell to the House. 

Campbell wanted to transform Bowles into executive suites to house executives who would take classes in a new semi-subterranean structure to be built just to the west of the hall. 

But Campbell lost the fight late in the summer, and the cancellation of the plans was announced shortly before the former Congressman handed in his resignation as dean of Haas. 

Much work remains to be done on the hall, which has been neglected by the university’s student housing department, and the alumni are on the case. 

Berkeley city officials had also faulted the plan, and argued that it too should have been included in the environmental review of the SCIP projects, since it was located just across Stadium Rim Way from the planned underground parking lot. 


Shades of green 

While Berkeley officials have been selling their fuels from crops projects as vehicles to make the U.S. energy-independent and as a way to develop an economically vital “Green Corridor” of new businesses in the East Bay, BP is much franker about the program’s goals. 

During meetings with industry and legislative officials in Washington in June, BP officials stressed that their company was a global business with a global reach. 

The multinational is keen to develop crops suitable for growth in the tropics of Africa, South America and Asia—what BP chief scientist Steve Koonin called “the green parts” of the globe. 

BP’s targets are the tropics of the Third World, not just east of the Mississippi in the U.S., the region emphasized by officials at UC Berkeley and its partners at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

And the first researchers dispatched by the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), as Berkeley’s BP-funded project is formally known, headed to India and Africa in search of potential fuel crops five months before the research agreement was formally signed in November. 

The BP grant attracted strong criticism from some students and faculty—particularly from the ranks of anthropologists, sociologists and others in the “human sciences” as well as environmentally oriented members of the College of Natural Resources. 

But a strong support campaign organized by the engineering faculty helped win a two-to-one vote of support from the Academic Senate. 

Though BP opened up the cash pipeline when the research agreement was signed, the year ended with a battle still raging over the building that will eventually house most of the research. 

During a Dec. 17 hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Report on the $160 million Helios building, not one single speaker commented favorably on the project, with criticisms ranging from the structure’s location on a hillside slope at LBNL to the research that will be conducted within its walls. 

The EBI wasn’t the only UC Berkeley-connected lab designed to turn plants into fuel launched during 2007. 

The second project, the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), has also begun setting up shop in Emeryville, funding by a $135 million grant from the federal Department of Energy. 

Before assuming their posts at the new institutes, both JBEI director and UC Berkeley professor Jay Keasling and EBI director Chris Somerville had created their own startup companies that are seeking to developing fuels from gene-tweaked plants—presenting potential conflicts Keasling has acknowledged will require careful handling. 

One of the chief criticisms directed at both projects has been the increasing dependence of public education on research agreements designed to create private profits, both for corporate sponsors and corporation-founding faculty. 

Agrofuel projects have the strong backing of President George W. Bush, and the recently enacted national renewable fuel standard mandates an annual production of 36 billion gallons of home-brewed crop fuels by 2022. 


Other projects 

The coming year will see the demolition of Earl Warren Jr. Hall, named for the UC Berkeley alumnus and former U.S. Chief Justice who presided over a court that set a new standard for civil rights and human equality. 

In its place will rise the Li Ka-Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, named for a Hong Kong real estate developer, container port magnate and cell phone entrepreneur. 

The new name followed his gift of $40 million to help fund the project. Ka-Shing is ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s ninth richest person, with an estimated net worth of $23 billion. 

Plans to create a major corporate/academic research park at the university’s Richmond Field Station remain on hold. They were shelved after controversy arose over cleanup of industrial toxins left on the site from a century of chemical manufacturing at the site and the adjacent Campus Bay property.